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Taming public procurement-induced corruption

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This year makes it 20 grueling and very eventful years since democracy returned to the country after many years of domination of the governance space by the military.Under the military, governance was according to the dictates, as well as, the prerogative of the generals, just as power was exercised by the use of the barrel of the gun to compel civil obedience.

In summary, military generals personified the state, as they brooked no questions about how national affairs were managed. When democracy came therefore, governance purists held the notion that all processes of governance would be subjected to the scrutiny of democratic institutions. But on the contrary now, it appears those good intentions and lofty postulations are becoming like the proverbial road to the graveyard. Currently, the final outcomes of attempts to do things right are all going south.

Ironically, these dismal governance outcomes of the last two decades have made scholars and practitioners to conclude in their various reviews that the democratic process has neither matched citizens expectations, nor have key operators run the system like it is done in climes, where the security and welfare of citizens have remained the primary purpose of governance.

Nowhere is this glaring failure of democratic institutions more apparent than in the corruption-infested procurement process, which has led to the unending bleeding of the nation’s resources on half-hearted interventions, which in turn deliver no real value to citizens.

In generic discourses about the state of the nation, with respect to the problem of corruption therefore, there can be no escaping the reality that the bulk of the corruption, which has undermined the country’s massive potentials comes from a procurement system, which in practice actually looks more like it is designed to enrich those in government.

Many of the grand scale larcenies involving public funds have their roots in opportunities created by weak procurement systems. A ready example is what has gone into the Nigerian corruption lexicon as the Dasukigate, wherein monies meant for the purchase of arms to fight the insurgency in the North East ended up in the bank accounts of military top brass. There were also reckless cases of conflict of interest, a situation in which parties ordering the procurement of goods and services, were the same entities, which created fronts to execute the contracts.

Till date, the country continues to count the cost of a heavily compromised procurement system in various aspects, including even the lives of military personnel lost to better-armed insurgents. Across many sectors of government, the lure of procurement remains an area, where the risks of corruption are rife.

To put the problem in context, it is pertinent to state that as far back as 1999 the World Bank Country Procurement Assessment survey found a nexus between weak public procurement procedures and corruption.

According to the Bureau of Public Procurement, the Assessment Report by the World Bank at the time revealed that 60 kobo was being lost to underhand practices out of every N1.00 spent by the government. The BPP in situating the extent of the problem noted that “an average of $10b was being lost annually due to fraudulent practices in the award and execution of public contracts through inflation of contract costs, lack of procurement plans; poor project prioritisation; poor budgeting processes; lack of competition and value for money, and other kinds of manipulations of the procurement and contract award processes.”

However, the problem is not one of lack of institutions; as far back as 2007, the Public Procurement Act was enacted to sanitise government’s procurement processes. It established the Bureau of Public Procurement charged with the responsibility to amongst others, provide legal and institutional frameworks and professional capacity for public procurement in the country.

The Act, according to Section 15 applies to the provision of goods, works and services carried out by the Federal Government of Nigeria, and all procurement entities, among others. Among other key provisions to make the procurement process transparent, and subject to proper oversight, the Act mandates all procuring entities to “obtain a Certificate of No Objection to Contract Award” from the Bureau within the prior review threshold as stipulated in the Act.

The provisions of the Procurement Act and other key mechanisms to prevent corruption notwithstanding, government entities engaged in procurement have largely carried on as if the law is only meant for the fine prints. At the federal level, government has generally shown scant seriousness for enforcing procurement discipline, using the instrumentality of the law.

For an administration that has trumpeted its readiness to fight corruption, there have been expectations that the Buhari administration, especially in its second term, would ramp up efforts against corruption using soft power assets like the procurement law, which would prevent corruption at its roots. Those who emphasise the need for this strategic approach talked about the fact that the nation needs not dissipate too much energy chasing thieves after they have bolted with their loot, when preventative strategies can be used to stop the heists in the first place.

Therefore, the grand narrative about corruption is how it perverts government’s resolve to address the social challenges faced by citizens, would be incomplete without talking about the need to activate preventive measures already provided by legal frameworks, like the Public Procurement Act. Leading anti-corruption campaigners have been emphasising that beyond the episodic moves against corruption, there is a need for an institutionalised approach, which explores preventive steps.

At the 13th edition of the Anti Corruption Situation Room in Abuja recently, these issues formed the core of the discourse, and the anti-corruption campaigners tried to remind of the cost of corruption, especially in procurement, and how it affects vulnerable groups.According to women’s rights advocate, Hajia Saadatu Mahdi, the anti-corruption agenda setting for the Ninth National Assembly would be incomplete without an inclusive engagement of citizens.

Her words: “There are concerns that the voice of women in the anti corruption drive is very low. There is also the concern that how corruption affects women’s access to services and facilities is greatly underplayed in the anti-corruption campaign. We need to be able to get the National Assembly to recognise that their oversight of what the ministries and agencies are doing, really takes services to the grassroots, where all Nigerians can access them.”

Interestingly, the point about how subversion of processes in the procurement chain denies women access to social services, and perverts the very good intentions of governance was exemplified when the Special Adviser to the President on Social Investment, Mrs. Maryam Uwais, told the audience how women beneficiaries of the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Programme were being short-changed.

“What we found out is that some community leaders were demanding for levies from the beneficiaries, and some local government officials in that community were also taking monies away from the beneficiaries. “And if you recall, the bulk of our beneficiaries are poor and vulnerable. So, when people ask them for, say N3000 out of N10, 000, for such beneficiaries, N7000 is still a lot of money. So they believe if they don’t give the bribe they would be removed, or get harassed.”

She said all those involved in the attempt to shortchange poor and vulnerable citizens have been referred to the law enforcement agencies for prosecution.Dr. Otive Igbuzor, who is settling into his new role as Special Adviser to the Deputy Senate President, also in his remarks, drew attention to the five critical groups, which he stressed needed to work together to reduce corruption in the polity.

These organisations, he noted include the executive, which has the task of putting in place due processes, mechanisms and financial circulars to ensure that laid down procedures are followed. Next to the executive is the legislature, which ensures there are laws in place to tackle corruption. The next group is independent commissions and agencies, which try to enforce the laws. After them comes the media, which is mandated by the Constitution to hold government accountable. Just right behind the media, Igbuzor said are citizens and citizen groups.

“In my view, the challenge that Nigeria has is that these five groups are not doing their jobs excellently well. To deal with corruption in any society requires focusing on systems and the way things are done to ensure that everybody sees corruption as bad and fights against it, and sanctions put in place so that those who engage in it are dealt with it.”

With respect to engaging the Ninth National Assembly therefore, Igbuzor called on anti-corruption campaigners to have a clear advocacy brief, which they would take to the National Assembly, outlining how these five groups critical to efforts aimed at reducing corruption would work together for the realisation of set anti-corruption goals.

On his part, the Deputy Country Director of MacArthur Foundation, Mr. Oladayo Olaide called on anti-corruption campaigners to move beyond name calling as an action against corruption. He said: “I think the challenge of corruption is very clear to all of us, but one thing we must also agree on is that name calling will not take away corruption. It doesn’t matter whether we call it evil, cancer, cankerworm, demon, a challenge or a problem; the bottom line is that we would need to move beyond name calling to be able to overcome corruption.”

Olaide added that while Nigeria has made some progress in the last 20 years, in terms of modernising critical institutions, including the enactment of procurement legislation, there still remains grounds to cover in other critical areas. He said: “I can count 15 to 20 different institutions that we have put in place; the problem is not one of lack of institutions. One major challenge in the fight against corruption is that it appears we have lost the capacity to enforce our laws.

“I think we need to find and recover that capacity. It is in enforcing our laws that we can make them to become effective deterrents. But laws in and of themselves are not enough. People take to giving and receiving bribes, sometimes because they see everyone else doing it. The question is: how do we also change behaviours?”


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